But You’re an Amateur

Two amateur astronomers, one in Australia and one in the Phillipines, captured the most recent impact of some unknown object (probably an asteroid) on Jupiter:

The person who captured the image on the left also discovered another impact last Summer. The guy who took the picture on the right was first to notice a mini red spot developing on Jupiter in 2006.

I’m constantly disappointed by professionals, and amazed by amateurs.

38 replies
  1. 1
    EFroh says:

    …unknown object (probably an asteroid obelisk)

    FTFY :)

  2. 2
    rickstersherpa says:

    In Astronomy, there is still a wonderful division of labor between professional and amateur scientists, as it is one of the areas where an amateur, with an investment of only a few hundredt to a few thousand dollars can still do path breaking science. The professionals for the most part are working on deep sky objects (stars, galaxies, interstellar, gas, black holes, exo-planets, etcetera). Amateurs, who want to discover new objects, concentrate on our solar system – planets, astroids, comets, dwarf planets, and how they interact. Frankly, both the professionals and amateurs amaze me and fill me with envy for their talent and passion (as desultory amateur myself).

  3. 3
    EFroh says:

    Or was it a monolith? Crap, I have to read those books again.

  4. 4
    LGRooney says:

    My Hawkingean bells are ringing loudly! Perhaps it is a re-entry!

  5. 5

    Hope you aren’t disappointed by pro astronomers, but by some in other fields.

    Just heard something on the radio or tee vee to the effect that there’s too much sky & not nearly enough observatory ‘scopes for the pros to cover it all themselves; they are often advised of cosmic events by the backyard telescoper.

    See also: #2. (Too slow!)

  6. 6
    Morbo says:

    And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
    Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

  7. 7
    mistermix says:

    @M. Bouffant: No, professional astronomers are great. Professional journalists, not so much.

  8. 8
    R-Jud says:

    Amateurs, who want to discover new objects, concentrate on our solar system – planets, astroids, comets, dwarf planets, and how they interact.

    Some of them are finding other objects, like the Rev. Robert Evans of Australia— he’s spotted more than 40 supernovae with his little telescope, more than anyone else in the world. “It’s just a hobby,” he says.

  9. 9
    giltay says:

    @rickstersherpa: That’s not quite the division of labour (at least, not in Canada and the US as far as I can tell). Huge amateur telescopes have been getting cheap enough that there are a lot of deep sky amateur astronomers. Even 50 years ago, when telescopes were expensive and clunky, deep sky observing was popular enough in Canada for the RASC to offer a certificate in deep sky observing.

    For sure, institutional interest has largely been towards the very deepest astronomy, especially astrophysics, in order to determine the origin of everything, but there is still siginificant planetary and stellar research being done (see NASA).

    You also get amateurs doing things like measuring the brightness of variable stars, because it’s simple and because you can average the measurements from 5 to a dozen observations and get high precision. This is coördinated by the AAVSO worldwide since 1911, and is a main source of stellar brightness information in professional research. Here’s where amateur astronomy really shines: there are a lot of people looking at a lot of the sky every night, where in pro astronomy, there are a few really excellent telescopes looking at specific targets every night.

    I have to agree, though, the images of planets taken by amateurs in the past few years have been stunning.

  10. 10
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @R-Jud: I loved that portrait of him in Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Everything”.

    Loved that book in fact. What a terrific writer.

  11. 11
    dmbeaster says:

    Professional astronomers actively enlist the help of the amateurs, such as , which has amateurs classifying the data on galaxy types.

  12. 12
    4tehlulz says:



  13. 13
    Hiram Taine says:

    It’s interesting that the very best quality amateur planetary imaging these days is done with webcams. The Philips Toucam Pro (out of production and hard to find) is a favorite and there are a couple of others that do a very good job.

    Basically you take a video through your telescope with the webcam and then use a specialized software to sort through the video frames, discard the blurry ones and “stack” the sharpest ones for increased signal to noise ratio and dynamic range, it’s kind of a shade tree version of adaptive optics.

    Registack and Astrostack both work pretty well for this.

  14. 14

    Great to see this topic noted here. It’s also worth noting that it is entirely possible for amateurs to build rather than buy telescopes and other instrumentation for astronomy. Take a look at the website for Stellafane, a National Historic Landmark in Vermont that is the home of the first group of amateur telescope makers in the U.S., and host every summer to a mind-boggling convention of amateur astronomers from around the world.

  15. 15
    Beth in VA says:

    Nice post except for the throwaway line

    I’m constantly disappointed by professionals, and amazed by amateurs.

    Constantly? There are a lot of idiotic amateurs out there, and I must admit I’m frequently amazed by professionals. You know, many scientists, professional firemen. Hell, our professional school bus driver is awesome.

  16. 16
    Blue Dot says:

    Time at the professional telescopes is at a premium and is vastly oversubscribed (factors of 3-10 x as many observations as their are nights).
    Because solar system objects are really bright an amateur with a digital camera can get awesome images. Affordable digital cameras for telescopes have pretty much changed the game. What in the past could only be done at a big observatory can now be done easily in someone’s back yard.
    The professional planetary astronomy community pretty much relies on the amateur astronomers to do monitoring of objects like Jupiter and Mars. There is even coordination between the professionals and amateurs such as Mars Watch
    http://elvis.rowan.edu/marswatch/news.php. Basically amateurs monitors Martian dust storms from the ground and post their images to a common website. Professionals who study the dust storms can then use the images for their research. It’s a division of labor that makes everyone happy.

  17. 17
    Bob T says:

    Amateurs have the luxury of having time to do long-term studies. Professional astronomers are lucky to get one or two nights at a major observatory, often costing $10K per night. There is no “bopping around the sky to look at cool things”, but have to come with a well thought out plan months in advance to maximize their time/science ratio. This usually excludes seeing something that happened “yesterday”. We LOVE the amateurs efforts, and often fill in the gaps that we professionals are forced to leave behind. Basically, there are thousands of professional astronomers worldwide vying for time on only a few hundred major observatories, and only the most competative observing proposals get awarded time – often much less than the proposal asked for.

  18. 18
    Viva BrisVegas says:

    Astronomy, the Queen of Sciences.

    Suck on it Mathematics.

  19. 19
    Blue Dot says:

    Also–once an event is identified it triggers an alert that goes out to the professional observatories. The observatories then do follow up observations with more sophisticated instrumentation which can look for compositional or thermal changes at the impact site.

    You’ll notice how fast the impact in the image got identified and the news got out. This is because the people doing the monitoring know how critical it is to identify these things fast so that the follow up observations at big telescopes can be made in a timely manner. The “amateurs” are really know what they are doing an why. It takes a huge amount of time, patience, and real commitment to make these kind of observations.

  20. 20

    Australia must be a paradise for astronomy – a big, arid, mostly empty continent with light pollution sources mostly concentrated in 6 metropolitan areas along the coast. And it’s in the less explored Southern Hemisphere. I’m jealous.

  21. 21
    ellaesther says:

    But… But… That would have to be HUGE!! Whatever that thing is that we’re seeing it’s likely bigger than, say, North America! (I’m totally guessing here. What I mean is: HUGE).

    Holy crow.

  22. 22
    Redshirt says:

    I am hoping to jump into this “Amateur” game myself – I plan on buying and actively using a telescope within the next year, and am very, very excited about it.

    Space is so awesome. Our Universe is so awesome, and thus, almost despite myself at times, our world, our politics, our personalities by default, our awesome.

  23. 23
    Graeme says:

    The big secret about professionals is that they’re making it up as they go along, too.

  24. 24
    gnomedad says:

    I follow “Astronomy Picture of the Day”, and when I saw this photo of Jupiter (the visible-light image on the left), I assumed it was from the Hubble. Nope, an amateur. Apparently, CCD imagers allow you to “average out” the atmospheric distortion over a series of image captures for bright but highly magnified objects like planets. Kinda like the Tourist Remover app, I guess.

  25. 25
    R-Jud says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Yes! I actually ruined my copy of that book from re-reading it. It’s the bibliography I really appreciate– I probably would not have started reading Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Feynman had I not read “A Short History”.

  26. 26
    canuckistani says:


    Do it. It’s a pretty low threshold to actually start doing real science in astronomy. I’m one of theose AAVSO guys too, and measuring variable stars is interesting and relatively easy. (See aavso.org for more details)

  27. 27
    Redshirt says:

    @R-Jud: I agree canuckstani. I’m planning on it.

    R-Jud – I would HIGHLY recommend cosmology books by Brian Greene – I am reading “The Fabric of the Universe” right now, and it’s just wonderful. As was his earlier book “The Elegant Universe”. Each gives a broad, general (with more technical sections) view of our Universe intended for non-scientists.

  28. 28
    Bob T. says:

    @gnomedad: We did that on purpose, gnomedad. (I work on the NASA-SOFIA project, the source of the APOD pic.) It wasn’t by accident we chose to use an amateur’s picture, on many levels. I’m saddened that the public is rarely aware of (a) how the system in which professionals operate actually functions…and (b) the level of cooperation between amateurs and professionals. But, all folks have to do is ask where that “pretty picture” came from! Alternately, I am totally jazzed that most folks dig astronomy and space sciences. Wicked!

  29. 29
    Bob T. says:

    See the vids at http://www.spaceweather.com and click away!

  30. 30
    Robert Sneddon says:


    Sadly Australia is fire-season central these days. The Mt Stromlo observatory burned a few years back costing the Southern hemisphere many historical telescopes which were still doing primary research work as well as workshops building instruments for other telescopes around the world.


  31. 31
    Redshirt says:

    Thanks for the updates Bob T.

    Count me as big fan of your work! Keep it up.

  32. 32
    ColoRambler says:

    redshirt: Seconded, again. I’ve been active in amateur astronomy for many years now, and it’s a blast. I’m a member of a club in a small (80K people) city, and every couple of days I get pictures on our E-mail list that put most photos in textbooks from the 70s and 80s to shame. All with off-the-shelf equipment and a bunch of practice.

  33. 33
    gizmo says:

    My interest in astronomy rises in direct proportion to human folly here on Earth.

  34. 34
    I have issues with Baltimore says:

    What does astronomy have in common with pornography: it’s damn sexy, and when amateurs do it the results are awesome. It’s a great pickup line in a bar when, after telling her I’m an astrophysicist-turned-planetary-scientist, I explain how the visual nature of astronomy makes it the sexiest of the sciences. Point being: it’s the pictures that hooks us on astronomy. Amateurs inadvertently do a lot of the PR legwork for our field: observing, taking pictures, and introducing their kids to the field. Astronomy is the ultimate gateway drug to the harder sciences.

    And there’s always plenty of professionals willing to help and work directly with amateurs. One of my old professors back at Columbia coordinates a program to get data from amateur astronomers. Astronomy is such a vast field with plenty of room for everyone, even the amateurs can specialize.

    Now, my field, planetary science, is a little more sharply separated. The amateurs are great for recording events that happen to Jupiter or in its atmosphere at visible wavelengths. But when I do research (Jupiter is my specialty, actually), I need data that comes from longer wavelengths. The only data I have come from probes, orbiters, and space telescopes. But often, like last summer, it’s the amateurs that first find the stuff we need to point all those telescopes at.

  35. 35
    krizriktr says:

    “I’m constantly disappointed by professionals, and amazed by amateurs.”

    I came across this today that pretty much explains why that is true:


    It boils down to this quote at the end:

    If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
    – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

    I highly recommend watching one of the videos, they are both the same material, but the second is animated.

  36. 36
    Vico says:

    “. . . and amazed by amateurs.”

    So we should let James Cameron and Kevin Costner fix the Big Leak?

  37. 37
    Dan says:

    I can’t wait for the amateurs to build a ring accelerators and start doing particle physics because those darn professionals just aren’t getting it done. And those dang amateurs that are doing all that global warming denial are doing such a bang up job. I am also impressed with all those evolutionary doubters who are biology amateurs.

  38. 38
    ClutteredMind says:

    I think astronomy is a bit of a special case as far as this amateur/professional thing goes. My father is one of the country’s leading amateur astronomers and I can tell you what I learned from growing up with him. There are far, far more “amateur” astronomers than “professionals”, with entire magazines devoted to the practice (My dad ran one of those magazines for many years), and a great many of them hold advanced degrees in the field. Just because they don’t happen to work for NASA doesn’t mean that they’re not extremely well trained and extremely knowledgeable. We’re not talking about a high schooler discovering new things with their telescope here (that’s happened too, but it’s the exception and not the norm), we’re talking about people like my dad with a Ph.D in astrophysics who have huge expensive telescopes and spend a great deal of time using them to observe things near and far from Earth. You’re kind of doing them a disservice by calling them “amateurs” I think, as really the only difference between an amateur astronomer and a professional astronomer is whether or not they get paid to do astronomy. In practice, their level of skill is probably about the same.

    I am speaking only of astronomers here, as that’s what I’ve got personal experience in through my dad. I am not trying to argue that all amateurs are the equal of professionals, just that they tend to be in this one particular field.

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